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Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture Hardcover – June 8, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-1585424986 ISBN-10: 1585424986 Edition: 1St Edition

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Hardcover, June 8, 2006
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

John Strausbaughis a regular contributor to The New York Times. His previous books include Rock Til You Drop and E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith.

From The Washington Post

Anyone familiar with director Spike Lee's satirical film "Bamboozled" will have a head start on the themes in Black Like You, John Strausbaugh's take on the sordid history of blackface minstrelsy, the mongrel nature of America and related skeletons in the closet of U.S. pop culture. However, this excellently detailed account provides a more sympathetic examination of blackface -- defined here as "a form of racist caricature invented by White Americans in the minstrel-show days of the 1800s" -- than Lee's moralizing assessment. The less didactic approach is not necessarily a good thing, lending an often apologist air ("Why does Eminem sound black?" he asks. "Why does Oprah wear her hair straight? Maybe they just like it.") to an otherwise thoroughgoing overview.

Near the beginning of Black Like You, Strausbaugh lines up the nativists -- arguing "that American culture was and always had been the culture the first Europeans had brought with them across the Atlantic" -- against the multiculturalists, who subscribe to the melting pot theory and rally "against the evil, imperialist, genocidal, sexist, racist, homophobic, exclusionist culture the Founding Fathers brought with them and transplanted here." Though he refuses to side completely with the second faction because of what he perceives as their often ironic divisiveness, he does conclude that America owes its true personality to the collective makeup of its various ethnic groups. Americans of color will likely shrug their shoulders at this, an observation they have long taken for granted. How Strausbaugh goes about supporting his perhaps obvious point is what matters most, though, as he delves into the origins of blackface, the minstrel show, early African-American literature, black cinema and Negrobilia collectibles (e.g, "mammy" cookie jars).

A friend once admonished me for being offended by comedian Mike Myers's hip-hop parody in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," for the same reason Strausbaugh offers when denouncing the politically correct: "Surely no one can still be so hypocritical as to believe disrespectful stereotypes are acceptable from people who look like you, but insist it is racism when a member of another race finds humor in it." The author has a point, and he raises it to defend white comedians' right to find above-the-belt humor in the ways of African Americans in the same manner that, say, jokesters on BET's "Comic View" continually poke fun at the behavior of whites. Though Strausbaugh doesn't wholeheartedly excuse the harsher aspects of blackface, this is typical of his stance in Black Like You. He is confident that modern Americans are mature enough to be able to indulge in some mutual teasing about our differences, and he is hopeful that this may lead to some reciprocal appreciation as well.

Strausbaugh is most on target with his rundown of minstrel history, which he concludes by drawing a parallel with modern aspects of rap music. In 1832, T. D. Rice, a white man professionally known as Jim Crow, toured frontier towns dressed in tatters and blackface makeup -- the infamous mixture of burnt-cork ashes worn with clownish red lipstick. His hillbilly minstrel hit, "Jump Jim Crow," sparked a craze that lasted another 50 years as the dominant form of popular music in the United States, before giving way to vaudeville and ragtime. Following the Civil War, black performers took to minstrelsy for the rare professional opportunities it offered.

"Some minstrel songs started as Negro folk songs, were adapted by White minstrels, became widely popular, and were readopted by Blacks," writes Strausbaugh. "The question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt -- that is, it was American music." The same case is made nowadays to claim jazz as American music rather than the sole invention of black Americans.

The chronological approach of Black Like You surveys the evolution of minstrel music from backwoods immigrant entertainment to its appearance in more legitimate theater, such as stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1890 Ernest Hogan incorporated ragtime into the minstrel format with his "All Coons Look Alike to Me," creating the offshoot of "coon songs." Strausbaugh makes it simple to trace the lineage from a minstrel dandy such as Zip Coon to the current rap popularizers of bling such as Lil Jon. He occasionally strays off message, such as when he wanders into an ill-considered exploration of Ebonics. But overall, Black Like You is an all-encompassing, breezily written summary of an aspect of American popular culture usually swept under the rug.

Reviewed by Miles Marshall Lewis
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Tarcher; 1St Edition edition (June 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585424986
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585424986
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,073,365 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Archer Blessing on October 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
AMAZING! Great writing, humorous and frank. Finally, a book about American culture, black culture, (and now, since we have discovered we all came "out of Africa") world culture, that's really worth the time it takes to read a book! Couldn't put it down. Takes you right up through to Rap, Rock, Pop, Gangsta'Lit, and Broadway. Hard to believe that John Strausbaugh's a white guy. You might want to check out his article and video in the New York Times Online Arts section (Strausbaugh is the host of the video podcast series on New York "Weekend Explorer"). Look for "On the Trail of Brooklyn's Underground Railroad." It pertains to Black Like You. Strausbaugh gives an expert tour about Brooklyn's abolitionists and shows a section of Brooklyn that was just (September, 2007) dubbed "Abolitionist's Place" supposedly acknowledging the historic importance of the underground railroad. It is obviously a hypocritical move on the part of New York's politicians, since, as Strausbaugh points out, all the "abolishonist" houses are about to be razed to put up a parking lot. But, back to the book: it covers the abolitionists, entertainment and every reality about race and culture that has been hush hush until Strausbaugh had the balls to speak up!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Harry Eagar VINE VOICE on August 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The first thing to say about "Black Like You" is that it's fearless. The second is, John Strausbaugh is a pretty funny guy.

There are so many themes in this serious book - no reason serious has to be solemn - that's it's hard to know where to begin, but a main theme is that blackface entertainment can be understood as youth rebellion, as much as or even more than some fundamentally racist trope.

Although "blacking up" can be traced way back, it erupted into popular culture on the Bowery in the 1830s, and the patrons were mainly young (often Irish) marginal white boys, who were under economic pressure from the proletarianization of American labor in the 19th century (a process explored solemnly and in great depth by Sean Wilentz in "Chants Democratic." Strausbaugh does not seem to have read Wilentz, but his conclusions are similar.). The same phenomenon, Strausbaugh says, erupted again and again, youth thumbing its nose against stodgy authoritarianism and dull order, as with the blues, rock and roll and hiphop.

Another theme is that America is a mutt culture,. It is not possible, in Strausbaugh's view, to make a bright line between racist blackface and the other kind. There were black minstrel performers, and in fact at some points they were predominant, and black blackface minstrel shows outlasted the white blackface.

Clearly, this is a cultural phenomenon that is not easy to pin down. Some blackfacing was viciously racist, some not so much, and maybe some not at all. Strausbaugh has no patience for either the antiblack racists nor the moralizing racists of the multiculti school.

He forthrightly calls the so-called diversity crusaders of the present day racists, and no one can doubt it.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Arlee Bird on May 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a highly readable book with some interesting and thought-provoking ideas. I can't vouch for the accuracy of everything presented here, but for the most part the data seems fairly plausible and convincing. For me, the first 3/4 of the book were far more interesting than the final chapters which analyze black influences in modern culture. Toward the end of the book I was anxious for it to end so I could move on to something else. I didn't buy some of the premises here, especially regarding "ebonics" and influence of Black speech on American English language. And though not too heavy handed, I did sense some sort of gay agenda wisping through some of the content of the book. Not making any accusations, but not sure what the author was trying to say about that and I didn't care to dwell on it.
Not a book that many people will love, but worth checking out if you are interested in the topics presented in the pages of BLACK LIKE YOU.
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